The temptation is to slam the lid shut on the year that was 2020. Throw the trunk into the car boot. Drive to the coast and hitch a ride on a trawler, head out into the North Sea, before tossing it over, weighed down with unopened bottles of Jura. But as much as we’re sick of the past 10 months or so, nicely summed up by the Oxford English Dictionary’s latest additions; coronavirus, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, keyworkers, furlough, face masks… we have an annual tradition to uphold in our review of the year that was.
It has been a year of sacrifice, loss, disappointment, frustration and worry for many. Personally, 2020 has seen great personal loss for myself and the experience of a COVID-19 funeral, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Somethings don’t need an explanation, do they? However, it is easy to file away this year and move on. I’m reminded that there are things worth celebrating and remembering throughout all the difficult times and disappointments.
Malt continues to evolve and grow. We made an effort to keep going throughout this year in spite of the difficulties facing all of us. We’ve continued to publish daily, often several times per day, as we’ve cultivated content and opinion to a growing audience. A few of our team have become more wrapped up in life; names you might not have seen much of late. And that’s ok, because life comes first. We’ve been bolstered by new voices and contributors, plus a growing confidence amongst our existing team.
Facts and figures mean only what you want to read into them. We finally claimed our rightful spot at the top of the website rankings after fixing our Alexa internal issues. As our Patreons will confirm, who hear all the stats and figures weekly, we’ve been at the top end for some time now and it was an overdue fix. As for our own list, we won’t be doing this monthly, but perhaps Mark can be persuaded to compile a top 50 or so, every few months when he can put aside those blue bottles?
We set ourselves a tough target of 3 million views in 2020 and we smashed it. As of December 28th, we’ve achieved almost 4.3 million for 2020 and December will deliver our first 500k month, which is frankly bonkers. We added a cider Saturday to our coverage and the response has been fantastic, as we continue to grow that section. Our brand of informed opinion, debate, discussion and interview, over and above tasting notes, continues to find an audience. There’s also been a continued shift away from more mainstream efforts such as Imbibe which sadly ceased publication in November. Some might see Malt as being specialist or niche; to which I’d suggest they haven’t been reading us. Forget the mainstream whisky brands we’ve done in these past few months, what about supporting a music festival on the Isle of Skye or the impact of COVID-19 on our bars? We’re doing more, when others are doing less.
What is crystal clear is what we’re gaining popularity and becoming more universally approved. This is a platform for whisky enthusiasts of all experiences, like you or me, willing and eager to provide an opinion. Something I’d take over a whisky expert or consultant, who on the whole are always going to say positive things. 2021 promises to be a better year for all of us, I hope. Clearly, more hardship and sacrifices await and there’s no point denying such obstacles. But as I look ahead, I’m proud of everyone involved here and what we’ve done in 2020.
An overdue apology
A significant part of the remit on Malt is to call out faults when we find them. To highlight and engage with what we believe to be bad practice. It is, by extension, incumbent on us to apply the same standards to ourselves.
Chief among my many personal faults is a shortness of temper. I am impatient, I am very quick to anger even over matters of no meaningful consequence and I have a defensive streak you could land a plane on. And, partially because of that, the most prominent feature of my year, so far as whisky is concerned, was not a bottle or a distillery or a style or a trend but an appalling piece of bad practice of which I am thoroughly ashamed.
In January I wrote an article that was not only a diatribe against a school of thought to which I was (and remain) opposed, but was a direct, profane and savage attack on the people who openly held it. It wasn’t an argument in support of my case, and far from moving the conversation onwards in a more constructive direction it entrenched positions on both sides. It was an article entirely without merit or value, was the most crassly stupid, mindless and inappropriate thing I have ever written, caused direct offence to several people within the whisky community and in addition to the negative light it rightly cast on me, it caused reputational damage to Malt by association.
I ought to have written this long ago, but although I touched on it in a Twitter thread here I haven’t properly and publicly said sorry. So to those within the whisky community who felt personally attacked or bullied by my article I offer an overdue but unreserved apology. I am deeply sorry for what I wrote and for the way it likely made you feel. I also want to apologise to the Lakes Distillery, whose whisky was attached, though unrelated, to the piece. I have erased everything besides the review itself and replaced the previous content with an explanatory note. I realise and entirely accept that none of the above will have any bearing on many peoples’ opinions, but I apologise nonetheless. This site, its readers, and the wider whisky community deserve better. It is, as I’ve said so many times, the highest privilege to write for Malt. In 2021 I will try to exercise that privilege with more consideration and humility.
A year in 3 sips
What a year this has been. I guess it will take some time before I will see myself able to round this one up. For as long as I remain unable to do so, I could at least try to swallow it whole, and three sips should help me do that. Sip one will be a rant, which seems more than appropriate for the kind of year this has been. Sip two will be a more positive appraisal so that we do not lose sight of the upside of things. Sip three will be to other times, looking out on what might be ahead of us.
So, here is to 2020 then.
Sip 1: The rant
Due to well-known circumstances, our social lives and interactions have been on hold for too long by now; and the little that is left of them has moved from the real world out there into the digital world shimmering from our screens. For my part, I do not like that. I miss real people, easy-going interactions, live conversations, and noisy pubs with beer from the tap; but that is just around the corner, so let us keep on hanging in there for another few months. Meanwhile, not only our social lives have partially moved online but so have our whisky experiences. And gosh, what a downgrade that has turned out to be – not on all fronts and occasions, but for certain personalities we have to run into and the kind of shows we have to endure when it comes to whisky online…
Influencers who would copy and paste virtually anything for just another like, YouTubers who gurgle and slurp straight into their cameras, self-declared experts who ramble on for hours about how special the Lagavulin tastes due to its seaside maturation, pseudo-collectors posting pictures of their bottles just before they flip them, show-offs who would use the smallest pretence to post pictures of their own collection just do outdo someone else on the web, filled glasses next to bottles whose open caps do not show, tasting notes copied straight from the packaging, flippers demanding prices that are even more ridiculous than what the industry dares to ask for, trophy hunters waving their chequebooks, bottles selling out within a few minutes only to be never heard of again, distilleries wrecking their spirits because they are too busy polishing limousines,… and the list goes on, and on, and on.
What a sorry lot we can be. Every day another meaningless hype, every week another hollow spectacle. When did we lose touch with solid ground? (Sorry, but I had to get this off my chest before moving on.)
Sip 2: The appraisal
In the end, what it all comes down to is what we have in our glasses and what we share with others. Was this all not about enjoying whisky together?
This year, a few friends and I have set up a blind-tasting circle where everyone takes their turn sending a blind sample to the others without giving any disclosure on the content whatsoever. Then, we take our time tasting the sample, share and discuss our notes, and speculate about the whisky. The liquid takes the centre stage, our taste buds act as the jury, and our discussions add the fun to it – with all the ups and downs that live performances bring with them. Of course, we are all curious to learn what we had in our glasses, but this is part of a larger story and adding some suspense to the fun that this round has turned out to be. As far as I am concerned, I remember the whiskies that we had in our circle over the last year much better than any of the posts I have seen online last week.
Sip 3: The outlook
So, in between this overheated madness and the simple pleasures of sipping on or sharing a good whisky, where are we to take things?
Why not get back to basics? The prices will not get back to decent any time soon, the noise will not calm down, and whiskies will not become that different after all. For my part, I enjoy my whiskies in good company – small matter if we share an Ardbeg 10 or a single cask from the 1980s (admittedly, more of a matter if we were talking wrecked standards here….). As long as we enjoy, share good company, and have a nice time together, the pour was more than worth it and always will be. Sharing real-time and live interactions with actual people – I would say the best way to move things forward is for them to get back to normal.
So, here is to you, 2021.
A decline in quality?
There are some obvious themes to take from 2021, but I’d like to dwell upon the whole single cask or store pick phenomenon, if you’d permit me a couple of minutes.
2020 has seen an explosion in choice with various releases from a variety of sources. Blends have been shoved aside and we’re all into single casks because they have that air of exclusivity and sense of privilege. As consumers, investors, collectors and flippers, there is a daunting spectrum of choice. This expansive range brings many delights, but also pitfalls.
The incessant demand is being poked and fed by distilleries and independent bottlers. What previously was a format that offered the chance to try distilleries and casks that were worthy of your time, is now engulfed with mediocrity and things that weren’t granted a patient approach. They’ve been bagged up, finished and kicked out the warehouse door into the real world. More than ever this year I’ve been faced with thoughts such as why did they bottle this? The emphasis on quality control and reputation has been sacrificed in some cases to take advantage of the market and to hell with the consumer; as the investor, collector and flipper are all less likely to open and explore.
I’d like to see a more thoughtful approach for everyone involved. People fear the boom going bust. Maybe Brexit will be the catalyst? We’ll find out soon enough. But bottling casks that don’t display the wonderful nature of Scotch, bourbon and their relatives is a sure-fire way to send customers in another direction. So, something to watch in 2021, will be if there is a migration away from whisk(e)y, towards other alternatives that offer better value and where you can purchase a bottle without engaging in a virtual street fight.
On that note, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped Malt this year especially our fantastic Patreons who ensure we remain 100% independent and ad-free. Whether from reading an article, contributing to or making a purchase, thank you for your support and we value your trust.
A dreadful year
2020 has been devastating for the food and beverage (f&b) scene. Well-known and beloved establishments such as Milk and Honey London closed. A lot of industry people lost their jobs or lost working hours. Plenty of establishments in many places are merely surviving due to the restrictions. Some cities have experienced lockdowns or have had repeated lockdowns. This has me worrying more about the future state of the f&b scene. Too many questions have been asked yet very few have been answered. All of this worrying has been maddening. At some point in the year, I just stopped staying actively updated with the news. So, pardon me if some of my guesses prove illogical or just completely wrong.
One thing I’ve been curious about is how the big brands have been doing? With the unexpected changes in numbers, how have their distillery operations been affected? I’ve heard of smaller distilleries having to shut down after someone in the team caught COVID-19. What are the projections going to be? What will the various conglomerates do with their plans for their changing stocks? I’m no economics expert, but it’s safe to assume their main market doesn’t have as much disposable income as they used to. How will they adapt to the weakened sales of the bottom shelf offerings? The establishments are serving a lot less alcohol as well. This means fewer shots and less volume in cocktail bars. This also translates into less bottles being bought at retail. Are companies like Beam-Suntory going to let the bourbon, for instance, meant for Jim Beam White Label, age longer? Only be bottled as soon as there are orders? Are casks going to be bottled and left in warehouses as soon as they reach the preferred age? Are they going to be aged longer and be designated to be bottled for the more expensive SKUs?
With the ideas above, are we going to temporarily see more focus on higher-end bottlings? After all, the target market surely still has more disposable income. With, highly likely, lower sales numbers for the low-end bottlings, I can see more aging stocks become allocated for either more releases of limited editions or more bottlings for already. Are we going to see an increase in quality for bottled spirits? Or are we just going to see more poor-quality limited editions?
It goes without saying that 2020 has been a challenging year. Outside of times of crisis, it has been a year that has led many people to reflect on what they do, and what is important to them. Whilst my job as a church minister is rewarding (although often challenging), there reached a point in the summer when I became bored senseless writing sermons, church newsletters and risk assessments. The pandemic had already led to me starting an Instagram account focused on whisky and hills, but it then led me to becoming a contributor on Malt. When I saw an advert for writers, I saw an opportunity to write something on a different subject, and in a different style to normal. I hoped that doing so would bring some life back to the daily writing that must be completed. I think it has worked, and hopefully, it has been beneficial all round!
It has been a privilege to share some of my whisky ramblings with you, and hopefully, that will continue in 2021. For me, when it comes to whisky, 2020 has been a year of tasting as many different whiskies as possible. I’ve been trying in vain to keep up with releases from new distilleries, and new releases from established ones, often finding myself beaten to the opportunity by flippers and collectors. This has been frustrating, but the reality is that there is so much different whisky out there that I’ve had no problem spending my budget.
In the midst of this, I faced a Daftmill quandary, as I won the ballot with the Whisky Shop. Having purchased, I had to decide whether to join the flippers, and make in excess of £300 profit or to open it and feel a bit financially reckless. In the end, I’m happy to have opened it and it has been shared with friends in an online tasting and through dram swaps. I can see why people choose to sell though – not everyone is in as comfortable financial position as me, and where there is easy money to be made, people will seek to make it. Yet, more proactive dissuasion of flipping is welcome, such as what we’ve seen from Royal Mile Whiskies and Dornoch, and hopefully, such schemes will be taken up by others in the new year.
My other notable 2020 event has also included a young distillery. I was lucky enough to win a custom-made cask from Holyrood Distillery through the Whisky Club. I’m looking forward to tasting the developing product over the next few years, and hope to share more of the experience with you along the way.
As a whole the big change this year has been the enforced move online, with some successes, but also a host of relatively repetitive and forgettable events. It has on the whole been a positive for me though, as I’ve found myself able to engage in a number of tastings across the UK that I previously would have missed out on. I’d expect this to continue in years ahead, with online tastings becoming every bit as important to distilleries, shops, and whisky clubs as in-person events. As a father of two young children, going out is at a premium, so this is a development I’ll welcome wholeheartedly!
The decline of on-trade
Normally I seem to have a bit of a rant at this time of year, assuming the role of some preacher with some hardened beliefs to empty into your brain. But it all feels a bit futile this year, doesn’t it?
Quite an odd one, this year for me, in my professional capacity as Head of Comms for that terroir-driven whisky brand, which for the first time put whiskies out worldwide, I’ve had a front row seat to view the dirty interface of the drinks industry and, more importantly, how Covid decimated much of that industry. For us, our launch was unaffected; we simply had to pivot as half the industry faded away. Which is to say the on-trade – on-premises, such as bars, restaurants and whatnot. Hospitality. The convivial part of society. Where people gather to unburden themselves of the slings and arrows of daily life or perhaps to mark life’s more poignant events; to indulge in a little pleasure. There has been very little of that this year, and I can’t quite imagine what it is like to be that pub owner or restauranteur whose livelihood has been removed by some rules apparently made-up on the hoof.
Not that we, our brand, were particularly focused on the on-trade just yet. We know our initial discussions were always easiest in the off-trade, which is to say shops, many of which bounced back to an ecommerce offering. Initially we spoke about how the drinks industry – perhaps one of the slowest sectors to embrace ecommerce – had no other choice. Click and collect schemes kicked in. Couriers were flying up and down the country bringing more booze than ever before. In fact, those existing online channels skyrocketed in their growth – reassuring to know that culturally, we want whisky, and we’re going to do our best to get it. Amazon almost certainly won the game.
Those brands with visitor centres suffered immensely – I was very saddened to see people I knew and respected in the industry laid off. Companies tilted their activities online. We were very digital anyway, but it meant endless amounts of Zoom tastings to various folk across the world. Lovely though it was at first, it’s not quite the same is it? Half-started sentences interrupted – “no, you go first” – it isn’t a fluid way to enjoy, uh, fluids. We on the brand end often found ourselves staring back at 40 blackened screens; questions are not so forthcoming in crowds like that. Despite a few excellent online tastings, I don’t think this is anyway for the drinks industry to carry on; it isn’t meaningful enough. The summer was one long festival. It all seemed… the same, like living in some whisky-bardo, not quite life, not quite the afterlife. Perhaps not the best metaphor.
Waterford jump-starting to global distribution meant very quickly I got to witness how various countries reacted differently. Our friends in Asia, by now quite used to pandemics, are carrying on with a huge degree of normality. Who knows what’s about to happen on the other side of the world, in the US. It certainly felt as if the UK’s drinks industry was hardest hit economically in Europe. Companies were quick to furlough staff for long periods of time. Contrast this to other territories were there was little furloughing, or perhaps reduced hours spread across the company; a shared load. They bounced back very quickly across the rest of Europe, but in the UK things still feel rather sleepy to this day.
And that poor old British on-trade. I have had one glorious meal out since February (and it was a very fine one indeed), but the opportunities to go out and drink with friends, family and so on, were few and far between. Pubs have started to fold – with large chains, the last place I’d tend to go, weathering the storm better than those going it alone. Iconic cocktail bars, no more.
So I don’t know. We’ll clearly be enjoying our drinks indoors this winter. In the UK, we’ll have a few days with friends and family, but it’s a different proposition. If I had thoughts this year it would be to try as much as you can at home. Try different things, compare them, try new drinks; use this time to branch out a little. Broaden one’s horizons, rather than turning to the brands and drinks we might have found comforting. The money you might have spent going out, put to something new. That is, of course, if you still have your job – I know many of you reading this might not be in such a comfortable position.
And then, I say, let’s look towards the Spring. Traditionally, culturally, and inevitably again, a moment of renewal, which for me means get into a pub or a restaurant once again. To step away from our increasing keyboard warrior trait – this slightly angry form of cultural woke-ism based on gut-reactions rather than considered thought, which has notably and predictably grown in the whisky community now that we’re all a fraction more angry inside – and instead, I cannot wait to engage in good old fashioned conversation, over one of the new drinks we might have discovered in this endless hibernation of 2020.
That Never Happened
Here we are again, at the end of a year all of us would like to place into the That Never Happened part of our memory banks. As whisky and drinks enthusiasts probably the big miss – I know it has been for me – is not being able to meet others either at local tastings or events. There was no Whiskey Social Belfast or Whiskey Live Dublin for obvious reasons this year and they were definitely missed within the Irish whiskey community.
Of course, tastings moved online and provided a chance for interaction but there looked like little opportunity for a grander scale get together. Step in Belfast Whiskey Week.
This was again meant to be a physical festival showcasing Belfast as a city but events in March made it very clear that wouldn’t be possible. When the organiser, Paul Kane, first floated the idea of taking the whole thing online eyebrows were raised and foreheads were furrowed. Could it really be done in such a short time frame and on such a grand scale? The physical festival had one exclusive tasting pack to be enjoyed online for 2020 and most of us encouraged Paul to just see that bit through and focus on building the festival for 2021 when we could all hopefully meet in person, in Belfast.
Paul duly ignored us and ploughed on full steam ahead. Online platforms were investigated, tasting boxes designed, bespoke glassware ordered and invites sent to brands and distilleries over all of Ireland and further afield to join in.
In the end, Paul and his crew of game volunteers organised an event over 7 days that included 43 individual tastings (all the sample bottles were hand filled!) covering the full gamut of whiskey from Ireland, Scotland, America and everywhere in between with tasting boxes being sent as far as the U.S. and Australia with the help of Anthony and Katie at Irish Whiskey Auctions. There were exclusive releases from Connacht Whiskey and Dingle Distillery among others. On top of that, there were local comedians and musicians to enjoy too.
Better still, even if you didn’t have a pack but wanted to listen too and interact with the distillers and brand ambassadors you could….for free. No Whisky Exchange style entry ticket required and the then the events were made available on YouTube too so you could catch up with what you missed.
It will be interesting to see what form the festival takes next year but I’m looking forward to it already.
It was the worst of times, it was the very-slightly-less-bad of times. This from a guy who spent last year’s review bemoaning some of the distressing trends that make Malt more necessary than ever to the average whiskey consumer! None of that has really changed, but additional gloom is the last thing that anyone needs right now. After all, even in this annus horribilis of 2020 there were some bright spots. Ignoring the bad and embracing the good, I’d like to look back on some highlights with you:
I (and by extension, you) have been the beneficiaries of some amazing generosity this year. Every review of a dusty treasure from years gone by, and indeed several of the reviews of hot new releases that disappear rapidly from store shelves, was the result of a sample shared with me. Some of these came from personal friends, but the vast majority came from folks who I have never met. Out of appreciation for what we do here and just because that’s the type of community that whiskey is, they shared rare and expensive whiskey and paid for shipping out of their own pockets. Please join me in extending our sincere thanks to all of them.
For my part, I was able to pay a lot of this generosity forward, if not back. The last few ounces (and, in some cases, the majority) of bottles I had sitting around were distributed via samples to some of the same people who shared with me. Much more went out to people who were simply curious or who responded to my public offers of whatever I had open at the time. The ebb and flow of samples out and in felt like a rhythmic pulsation of this community’s heart for a large portion of the year, and I am once again grateful for the chance to share and share alike.
In addition, we had some incredible engagement with members of the industry who spared their time to answer my interminable questions in a spirit of candor and good cheer. It’s impossible to pick a favorite; the meticulous Brian Haara is as engaging a conversationalist as the jovial Jason Johnstone-Yellin, while Shane Baker and Haresh Bhojwani are true pioneers with unique stories to tell. Again, a heartfelt “thank you” to each of them.
All of the above is meaningless, however, without the most important component: you, our readers. Whether you’re a long-standing supporter of the Patreon program or a newcomer to the site, I value your time and attention in the utmost and don’t take it at all for granted. So long as I can find stories to tell and whiskeys to offer an unbiased take on, I’ll be hammering away at the keyboard on your behalf. The greatest blessing in life is to have a long list of people to thank, and you can tell from the above that this is certainly the case. Foremost among them is you, and so I’ll be content to end this piece (and, indeed, this year) on a grateful note. While there’s not much of 2020 that I’d wish to repeat, these good parts would score a 10/10 on the Malt scale.
The Whisky Sleuth
A year of anomalies
I have no idea where to even begin. It has been a spectacularly bizarre year, and part of me hopes to wake up on the first of January to find out that it has all been a strange dream. If you think about it, so many aspects of this year have resembled the insane topsy turvy stuff of comedic nightmares.
We have had some incredible scientific breakthroughs, bringing vaccines to market in record time, only to find out that the cure has been right under our noses. Who would have thought that the humble Scotch egg possessed such amazing antiviral properties?! A mind-boggling discovery, it makes me really proud to be British, to live in a nation of such innovation and intellectual prowess. While crypto is not in the least bit new, and Bitcoin seems to be gaining momentum once again, this year we have created not one, but two new currencies; claps and toilet paper. Every Thursday at 8pm, our tireless essential workers could check their bank balances to find those claps winging their way over. Some people even discovered that clanging pots and pans together would triple the clap bonus! Truly, well deserved, but as my grandmother would say after I had washed the car, don’t spend it all at once. Meanwhile, as toilet paper prices reached dizzying heights at corner shops across the country, and sheets of Andrex were exchanged in seedy back alleys, everyone seemed to forget that the neighbour’s garden hose is free. I did not, and the roses looked all the better for it. Thankfully, not all has been complete madness. I was mighty relieved to read that Dominic Cummings finally left Downing Street to take up his true calling as the chief ambassador for Specsavers. Word is that he is aiming to have drive-through eye test centres at all English Heritage sites from next year.
I was rather hoping that whisky would be my lodestar to navigate through the upside-down, just a small measure to gather my bearings by and remember normality, and in so many ways it has been. The industry has ploughed on remarkably well in the face of a global pandemic, and I think sales will have been exceptional. Speculation and investment in whisky is the next logical step after the brief but meteoric rise and fall of the toilet paper market, not to mention everyone at home repeatedly self-administering smell and taste tests. For me, it has provided a welcome distraction to continue my whisky education. The big personal revelation this year is that blind tastings are really the best and purest way to assess whisky, removing all preconceptions from the liquid itself, and I have been doing just that on a regular basis with a couple of friends; shout out to The Tasting Trio, our three-way blind tasting bromance has helped keep me sane. I also felt very pleased with myself after my marathon Adelphi tasting back in May, when I deciphered what constitutes the ideal sherried whisky for me; if it is over sherried, it requires peat, and if that peat brings notes of meat, then I am as happy as a pig in (fill in the blank). Alas, not even whisky has been able to stand up to the paradox that is this year, and my smug sherried self has been taken to school by my whisky of the year, just pipping that heavenly, meaty Adelphi Coal Ila. It is an utterly ridiculous young Glen Ord, blasted with an aggressive sherry finish. On paper, it is everything that I thought I had successfully pigeonholed as over the top, and yet it is sublime. A complete surprise, baffling and welcome in equal measure. Notes will hopefully be with you all in the not-too-distant future.
So, there you have it, up is down and down is up. A year of anomalies, much sadness, yes, but also plenty to look back on and laugh about, and I am big believer that laughter is absolutely the best medicine, especially in situations over which we have little control. I wish you all the very best of health as we approach the new year, and hopefully plenty of fantastic whisky discoveries. See you all on the other side.
Adam’s image snapped by Suzy Hazelwood, Ben’s photograph captured by Cottonbro, John’s neon image by Pixabay. We thank Ivan Samkov for Jon’s image, while Jason’s photograph is by Arthur Brognoli, Mark’s photograph by Wendy Wei, Phil’s fireworks by Rakicevic Nenad, Taylor’s by cottonbro, Sleuth’s from Mark Neal.